COEUR d'ALENE - An area once known for transient camping has been rejuvenated into a picturesque athletic playground.
The general public avoided the sliver of land for decades, but now, with the emergence of a cyclocross course built by veteran designer Mike Gaertner and volunteers, the aim is to attract outdoor enthusiasts - the more the better.
The Bureau of Land Management-owned sliver of land bordered by the Spokane River and Centennial Trail on the west, Northwest Boulevard on the east and Hubbard Avenue on the south is now home to a world-class course, which has seen steady use in the past few weeks.
Riders practice on the course and volunteers massage the hairpin turns and gravel roads which will see competitive action on the weekend of Nov. 15-16, when the WildWest Cyclocross Series hosts its series finals on Saturday, followed that Sunday by an Inland Northwest Cyclocross Series event.
The course Gaertner, the owner of Vertical Earth Bike Shop on Sherman Avenue, has laid out takes advantage of the natural terrain, with a trail wandering through the ponderosa pines near Northwest Boulevard, before the course takes to the gravel road and heads toward the river. The course utilizes the natural terrain including sand pits, sidehills, fields and steep hills (called run-ups, where most riders shoulder their bikes and hike to the top).
"A great cyclocross course will have a mix of all terrains and utilize all skills, combining technical abilities and fitness," Gaertner said. "We'd like to see this become a permanent cyclocross course that could hold year-round cyclocross, mountain bike and BMX races.
"Our goal is for this to become a multi-use athletic venue and one of the possibilities could be practice courses for high school cross country athletes."
Gaertner said as a permanent course, its proximity would greatly benefit the cycling community by allowing them to stay in town for their recreation, thus saving travel time to and from outlying areas.
His vision also includes a cyclocross race on the weekend of the annual Coeur d'Fondo, with the hope that races on three consecutive days would encourage even more people to come to town and stay the whole weekend. "This year we had the criterium races downtown on Friday, and adding a cyclocross event on Saturday would complement Sunday's fondo nicely."
Gaertner obtained permission from the city and BLM to create the course.
The city of Coeur d'Alene is building a master plan (part of a federal process) in order to lease and eventually acquire the two-mile piece of old railroad right of way owned by the Bureau of Land Management - commonly referred to at the Four Corners area - which includes the land where the cyclocross course currently resides.
Coeur d'Alene Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee chair Chris Bosley is also on the planning team for the Four Corners/BLM Corridor plan, and he recently had a chance to view the course and watch as many riders navigated their way around. Mike's wife Jenni Malloy Gaertner, a veteran cyclist who has competed worldwide, is also on the bike/ped committee.
"I really appreciate the commitment that Mike and Jenni Gaertner have to the bicycling community, with weekly rides, cyclocross clinics, and races and Jenni's role as the bicycle representative on our committee," Bosley said. "Incorporating a cyclocross/short-track mountain bike course within the 4 Corners/BLM Corridor plan is something that we are considering at this time and after seeing the existing course, it seems to fit very well within the corridor.
"The creation of a bike park in the city has been identified in the Vision 2030 Implementation Plan and is a recommendation from the League of American Bicyclists for improving our Bicycle Friendly Community status from Bronze Level to Silver."
On Nov. 16, the Inland Northwest Cyclocross series comes to town, with juniors, collegiates, womens, mens and masters USA Cycling categories racing during the course of the day.
Cyclocross has its origins in Europe, with events in Belgium, France and the Netherlands traced back to the middle of the last century. The sport continues to increase in popularity nationally, and the back-to-back events in different series in mid-November will bring many of the top cyclocross riders from the western U.S. to town.
Present-day cyclocross bikes are similar to road bikes, with drop handlebars and 'clipless' pedals. Wider openings in the frame and forks allow for larger tires for traction in mud, sand and deep gravel.
Many spectator areas will be available to view the athletes, and the tradition of 'heckling' the riders adds to the fun atmosphere of the race. Good-natured ribbing (trying to get the rider to laugh) is often welcomed, as the riders are usually going all-out, and a little comic relief makes the pain somewhat easier to endure.
Similar to triathlons and running events, many spectators also ring - or bang on - cowbells to encourage the riders to give it their all.
Getting involved in cyclocross is easier than one might think. Many people have an old mountain bike laying around gathering dust, or they know someone who'll let them borrow one, and local bike shops have cyclocross bikes available for sale.
Many road cyclists use cyclocross to keep them in shape during the late fall and early winter. In stark contrast to road cycling, cyclocross racers commonly endure cold temperatures, wind, rain and mud during an event.
The selection of tires needs some careful consideration, as the rider needs much traction for the varying course, but at the same time wants to get some speed on the flat, gravel sections.
"The course is right at two miles long," veteran cyclocross racer Dietrich Lange said, after putting in some laps at the course recently. "I think the really fast guys will be making laps in the 8 1/2-minute range during the races.
"Whatever a rider's weakness is, it's going to punish them. The course is tight and technical, long straights, descending, run ups, sand pits, logs - it's got it all."
Lange, a volunteer who helped build the course, took his friend, Rick Mattis, for a lap of the course, after which Mattis predicted pain for the hard-core racers competing in the upcoming events. "Yeah," he said, braking to a stop. "That's (racing here is) gonna hurt."
Racers push themselves as hard as possible in the events, which run from 40 minutes to an hour. But novices can enjoy the course as well. Anyone with a mountain bike can hop on the trail and get a great workout and learn some bike handling skills in the process.
"This is not only my first year in cyclocross, but my first year racing bikes of any sort," Coeur d'Alene resident Vance Orr said. "The course has so much variety - there's something for everybody."
Wild West Cyclocross Series
Coeur d'Alene BLM Course
*For schedule of events, go to wwwe.wildwestcxseries.com
Inland Northwest Cyclocross Series
Coeur d'Alene Cross schedule of events
Coeur d'Alene BLM Course
All races 40 minutes unless otherwise noted
9 a.m. - Collegiate men and women, singles speed men and women
10 a.m. - Mountain bike men and women
11 a.m. - Mens category 4
11:01 a.m. - Men's category 5
Noon - Masters men 40+
12:01 p.m. - Masters men 50+
12:02 - Masters men 60+
1 - Junior boys and girls (ages 9-13, 14-18), 30 minutes
1:01 - Youth boys and girls (ages 9 and under), 30 minutes
1:15-1:30 - Awards for collegiate, single speed, MTB, Cat 4 men, Cat 5 men, masters 40+, 50+, 60+.
1:45 - Womens pro category 1-2-3-4, master women 45+, 45 minutes
2:50 - Mens pro category 1-2-3, 55 minutes
2014 Inland Northwest Cyclocross schedule
Oct. 18 - Palouse Cross at Sky Ranch, Moscow
Oct. 25 - Memorial Pool, Walla Walla, Wash.
Oct. 26 - Rooks Park, Walla Walla, Wash.
Nov. 9 - Apple Cross, Walters Fruit Ranch, Green Bluff, Wash.
Nov. 16 - Coeur d'Alene Cross, BLM course, Coeur d'Alene
Nov. 22 - Riverside Rumble, Riverside State Park, Spokane.
Nov. 23 - WSBA Championships, Riverside State Park, Spokane
Dec. 13 - INWCX series finals, Waterfront Park, Medical Lake, Wash.
Dietrich Lange (front) negotiates a switchback on the Coeur d’Alene cyclocross course while Vance Orr heads into the treeline behind during a recent practice at the facility.
Coeur d’Alene resident Vance Orr flies from a treed section of the Coeur d’Alene cyclocross course.
Dietrich Lange carves a turn and heads up a steep incline during practice recently on the Coeur d’Alene course.
Vertical Earth Bike Shop owners Mike and Jenni Gaertner have competed in national and international cylcocross events. Mike, a veteran course designer, laid out the new course on BLM land, just north or the North Idaho College campus.